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Meeting Filmmakers from Malibu Festival

Malibu - The Malibu Film Festival wrapped it’s 7th year here Monday and it seems like after a few false starts this regional festival is finding an identity. Malibu Beach is a community that is known worldwide. The point break at Surfriders is where the sport of surfing gained popularity in the early 60’s and the town is home to countless residents associated with the entertainment and record industry. This years festival featured a potent combination of surf/skate films, music documentaries and a couple big Hollywood premieres.

Despite the icy water temperatures and setting sun, dozens of surfers dotted the coastline as I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to attend the world premiere screening of the surf documentary “Chasing Dora”.


The film was based on an article penned by Malibu resident and surf legend Micky Dora bemoaning the commercialization of surfing. Micky challenged readers to a contest that would strip surfing of all of its labels and pretense. His dare went unanswered for decades while boards got shorter, corporations co-opted the sport and surfing became a mainstream activity taken up by poseurs and wanna-be’s. Years his passing three surfers took up the challenge and filmmaker Wes Brown convinced Fuel Tv to fund his documentary as he followed the surfers from Malibu to Jeffreys Bay South Africa.

Just over an hour in length this documentary captures the rebel spirit of surfing and encapsulates the sports history with candid interviews and spectacular surf footage. The filmmaker, Wes Brown is the grandson of Bruce Brown the director of the seminal surf documentary “ENDLESS SUMMER”(1966) Wes is also the son of Dana Brown who’s credit list includes “ENDLESS SUMMER 2” and “STEP INTO THE LIQUID”. The entire Brown clan was in attendance at the Jaguar Theater and the screening drew loud cheers and applause that drowned out the dialogue several times.

I managed to catch up with the cinematographer Jeff Cunningham in the parking lot outside the outdoor theater constructed by Jaguar Motor Cars to screen several of the festival films.

Do you surf Jeff?

Yes, I’m also into rock climbing and we just got back from South America where we were climbing, but, yeah I moved here from Texas a few years ago to make films and surf.

Tell us about the shoot.

Well we shot for 3 weeks in July of 2005. We brought all of our gear along with us including 4- 16 mm cameras and an HD rig. We got through customs no problem, but getting the gear to the location meant pushing 25 cases a ¼ mile across the terminal in Johannesburg.

The Shorts Program

One of my favorite sections of programming at most festivals is the shorts program. It is the best opportunity to see fresh faces, original storylines and discover new talent. A few of the short subjects that stood our for me where Ewan Telford’s “APOCALYPSE OZ” and Michael Mohan’s “INITIATION”

INITIATION and director Mike Mohan

Mike, you’ve made a number of short films and I’m wondering what you think of the recent google video, youtube, myspace phenomenon. Are these sites going to help create appreciation for short films in America? Or is it a passing fad?

Right now is such an exciting and scary time in independent film. Everyone is an independent filmmaker. If you look at the most recent history of indie cinema, back in the 90's-- only the most passionate of people could scrape together the money to pay for film and processing; and if you were lucky, you might find distribution. Then in the early 00's, anyone now can buy a good camera, and use final cut pro or even imovie to make a film; but distribution was still only there for the select few. But today, April 2006; not only can anyone make a film, there's this platform out there now, so that anyone can distribute a film on their own.

So to me, that's fantastic, and it allows people who want to tell stories to have the tools at their fingers to be able to tell their stories and get them seen. But it's also very scary-- because with the sheer amount of content that is now put out there as "independent film"... how do you stand out? It's hard to get people to go to a theatre and buy a ticket to some unknown movie. But it's almost equally as hard to attract someone to simply click on your url. And with the internet, now word of mouth is usually delegated to things that are not meaningful, but rather comedy/celebrity based videos that allow people three minutes of procrastination at work. So the most passionate of filmmakers, hopefully they're making their films, but people aren't necessarily seeing them.

So right now, I firmly believe it's NOT a passing fad, but we're just scratching the surface of what may soon become the new model for distribution in indie film. Especially shorts, where the intention is usually not related to actually make money, but rather exposure. Look at Sundance; a HUGE portion of short films that played the festival also were featured on their website.

Can you tell us about your partnership with your producer Chris Goodwin: how did you meet?

Chris and I met at Chapman University, where we both went to film school. We've collaborated on a number of projects in addition to Initiation; right now we're in production on a series of short films surrounding the Casual Encounters section of Craig's List for our supportive family at

I actually have a whole other family of creative collaborators as well that I work with from project to project. Jon Frechette is another great friend of mine; we've written several features together and collaborated on shorts. Anthony Deptula and Stephen Hale are two other very dear friends of mine; a series of short films we recently finished called "You Can Awesome" will be premiering on the Fuse network as part of their show "Munchies" later this month.

INITIATION is a really well crafted short film. When and where did the idea strike? What were the challenges you faced in getting it made?

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Massachusetts called Norton. I remember the first time I came back after coming to California for college, the whole town seemed different. The people were all different. My old friends were somehow different. The coffee shop and the video store were somehow different. And as the years went on, I realized that it wasn't different at all-- I was different, my perspective was different, and everything else there was the same as it was before I left.

I also wanted to view this phenomenon through the eyes of the people who stayed behind. The people who still work at the Fashion Bug in the stripmall in Norton. What were their lives like?

The heart of the story though came from real life; I remember one of the fraternities on campus had the most vicious of fraternity initiation rituals. One of the victims of this became my main character.

In terms of getting the film made; honestly, there were no problems whatsoever. We shot over the course of 6 days, and edited the film over 6 months. Our great executive producer Kelly Greenwell is actually the mother of our lead actress (Jordan Elliott), and so she was there with support and always let us pretty much do what was right for the film. She was especially patient in giving us the time necessary to experiment in editing. I've been very lucky in these regards; I've been able to make most of my films in this way; the financing coming from actors looking to build up their reel.

Where can our readers learn more about INITIATION and your other films?

In the near future should be up and running. Until then, they can email me at, or watch some of my other films at

APOCALYPSE OZ and director Ewan Telford

Your film borrows its themes , characters and music from beloved American films yet creates a completely original hybrid. What challenges have you faced with the films perception by the media, festivals or the public?

The film offends some people, but by and large the response has been very enthusiastic. So far we haven't met with any real challenges. The Wizard of Oz holds a unique and hallowed place in the cultural heritage to the point of godliness. Forget cold aesthetic judgment - for some, tampering with it is simply sacrilegious.

That’s to be expected. For others, appropriation or revisionism of any kind, especially of monolithic classics is simply illegitimate. In this case its
ironic or simply short-sighted as one would have to level the same criticism at Apocalypse Now and Wizard Of Oz. By and large though, audiences have understood what I’m doing immediately and recognize that there is a third film
there that develops its own themes and stands alone whilst being as affectionate of its sources as it is irreverent. All in all a healthy mix of disgust, outrage and rapturous reception.

Will this cineclash genre you’ve created translate into a feature length film?

For Apocalypse Oz, yes it will. The project lends itself to expanding the themes and deepening the characters of the short considerably, which will carry
the feature further into its own territory beyond the parent films. At the same time, the expanded scale will enable a more intricate hybridisation of the
original Apocalypse Now and Wizard Of Oz screenplays which I still want
to stick to closely.

Where can people learn more about your film?

Our website is the best resource

The Feature Program

Another reason that film festivals offer a better opportunity for interesting films than your local multiplex is you often get the chance to see indie films before they are processed by distributors for the art house circuit. The directors Q+A’s give the audience an immediate response to post screening questions that you miss at a theater or on your DVD player. A couple of films that should be hitting theaters soon and really stood out at this years festival were “PUPPY” and “JIMMY and JUDY”

JIMMY and JUDY – and director Jon Schroder

Jimmy and Judy has a very distinctive look and feel – was this a calculated choice on your part; to make this film look like it was made spontaneously?

We tried to strike the happy medium of a "home movie" type of feel, but we also wanted it to be nicely lit and framed. Our cinematographer, Ben Kufrin, myself, Randall, and especially Edward Furlong and Rachael Bella all worked very hard on the look and feel of the film. The last thing we wanted is for people to compare our look/cinematography to the Blair Witch Project. I think it has a distinctive look and feel b/c the camera, in a way, is actually a character in and of itself. It is constantly being referred to and is treated, by the characters, as it's own entity. Giving the camera it's own "personality" certainly added to the feeling and emotional impact of the visuals.

Edward Furlong really stands out in your film. How did he get involved?

We got Edward Furlong simply b/c he loved the script. He met with us immediately reading the script and signed on. Eddie is a little twisted himself and I found that he was attracted to the darker, more provocative scenes in the script. Eddie was so excited to play this character and nearly jumped over the table while we were talking about ideas for the Jimmy character.

The writing is excellent and you obviously took great care in crafting the screenplay-can you take us through the process from first draft to the shooting script? What challenges did you face? How did the story take shape?

The script certainly came from a dark and and angry place, but at the same time we wrote around certain locations that I knew I could get for free - the entire film was shot in my hometown in Kentucky. Basically, Randall and I were tired of the endless meetings with managers, producer, and agents and wanted to write something that we could do ourselves. The story is a mixture of true life events mixed in with some rather fantastical views of what it is like to be a teenager/young adult growing up in today's world.

PUPPY and producer Melissa Beauford

The film has been very popular on the festival circuit; what are some of the highs and lows?
When it comes to the festival circuit filmmakers essentially have two fears. The first is that nobody will show up to watch the film and the second is that the audience won’t like the film. People often think that once your film has been selected for a festival the hard work is over but in our experience that’s when the work really begins.

At SXSW our film was scheduled at 12 noon on the first full day of the festival and we could only get there the day before. The cinema we were screening at was a great concept cinema called the Alamo Drafthouse (which serves food and drinks during the movie) but it was a bit out of the way. So the very first screening we were fearful it would be poorly attended and it would be a downer given that we had come all the way from Australia.. Fortunately although not standing room only it was a great crowd and the audience loved the film. We did a great Q&A afterwards and it is always great to get feedback from the audience.

I think we went to about 15 networking parties in the next few days and with a little help from some local advocates we got on morning radio to promote the film. At the parties women were coming up to hug Kieran and say how they were just crazy about the film. The next screening (same cinema in an afternoon time slot) was even fuller, and the audience was fantastic. They loved the film.

Puppy has also screened at different festivals in different formats and the quality of projectors is always a concern. I’m pleased to say the best experience we had was screening from HD at SXSW. Kieran and I were worried how it would look as we’d never watched it screen from HD before. It looked amazing, sharp and saturated. That was a very pleasant surprise for us; especially as it will screen digitally in a lot of cinemas in Australia and New Zealand when it is released on 29 June 06.

How did you and Kieran meet?

My background is in entertainment law, and I was an acquisitions executive for Arclight Films. Originally I was introduced to Kieran to come on board as an Executive Producer and handle all the legal side of the production. At that stage the producer attached was Karel Segers and he had developed the screenplay with Kieran.

When I read the screenplay it was self-evident that Kieran was (and is) a very talented writer. I’d seen my fair share of mediocre screenplays and even the occasional strong one, but nothing prepared me for Puppy. The writing just jumped off the page. The characters were real. The dialogue was so finely nuanced that it rang true. I read from start to finish totally enraptured and buying every leap and twist and finding myself rooting for characters that initially were very flawed. The lead female character was so strong and well written, which is pretty unusual when it comes to male screenwriters, that frankly I was relieved that she wasn’t going to be some cinematic cliché. So the decision to become involved was easy. It was just down to the quality of the screenplay.

Of course I also looked at Kieran’s short films which had played at over 120 festivals around the world, just to get a sense of his style. Puppy was the kind of screenplay that could easily be misinterpreted. On reading it, it could easily have gone down the pure-thriller route but once I watched Kieran’s short films I knew he would be directing it as a drama with the emphasis on the personal trajectories. That’s where my personal sensibilities lay as well.

Only a few weeks later Karel’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, had a significant health scare (fortunately that worked out well for mother and son) but Karel had to withdraw from the project. The delay would have set it back a year.

Kieran was determined to move on and Karel was fully supportive. So there I was sitting in my office in Sydney reviewing distribution and licensing contracts, and Kieran was in Melbourne trying to find a great production manager to fill the gap, and I just had a moment where I thought to myself “I’ve really got to make this film”. I rang Kieran and said “I’m coming to Melbourne and I’m going to make this film with you.” A week later I was there, we were in pre-production crewing up, and the rest is history.

I realised something about myself. I’m a hands-on person and I need to be involved in the creative side as well as the production side. I knew also that I would have to get my hands dirty to fully appreciate the vagaries of indie filmmaking.

And in a nice touch once the film was shot and edited, Karel’s wife had given birth and was in good health, so Karel was back on board and he actually composed the score for Puppy. It was an important part of the journey for Kieran and Karel as they had started it together.

How have US audiences reacted to PUPPY?

Kieran loves US audiences. They are very different to other audiences. For a start they are vocal, they react to the film while they are watching it, whereas European audiences are more circumspect and reserved and often wait to discuss the film afterwards.

It’s been gratifying for us to have US audiences break into spontaneous applause during the film – this is something we’ve never experienced with Australian or European audiences. It’s like Americans want to share their reaction to the film with other audience members, so the atmosphere becomes highly charged and contagious. There’s a scene in Puppy that involves a vacuum cleaner and we love sitting there knowing that scene is coming up because the audience goes very quiet and then start to giggle nervously before they finally crack up.

We watched the film in London recently and the audience there was very different to the US audience. I think they appreciated the black humour more than the US audience, and they certainly laughed a lot, but you could feel their reservation – it was quite different to the US audiences, it was as if the English viewers didn’t want the people around them to know what they were thinking. Some of that comes down to the story and content of the film where I think the English audience needed permission to laugh because some of the scenes are funny but also scary at the same time. American audiences don’t need permission from anyone. They just take it in their stride and embrace the craziness.


Additional notable moments included a screening of the documentary “Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi”, a daredevil Venice Beach vertical skateboard champion who, after his career waned, served prison time for drug trafficking. The film is directed by Cesario "Block" Montano and is narrated by Dennis Hopper.

The program was nicely rounded out with hollywood fare included the Billy Kent drama “The Oh in Ohio”, starring Danny DeVito, Parker Posey and Liza Minnelli, and the closing night feature film “The Proposition”, directed by John Hillcoat with a script by rocker Nick Cave. The film is set in the harsh and rugged Australian outback of the 1880s and is a tale of loyalty and revenge as a brother must make an impossible choice when he is offered the chance to save one brother from execution by tracking and killing his older brother.


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